“Of all the challenges a child experiencing homelessness may be faced with, a basic lack of supplies to complete schoolwork should not be one of them, especially since education can be a critical tool to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty.”
With summer heat still upon us, it may seem too early to think about the return to school this fall, but already hundreds of thousands of New York City parents raising children in homeless shelters across the five boroughs are asking themselves a simple question: how am I going to provide my children with the school supplies they need this September?
If preparation is the key to success, access to critical classroom tools can make all the difference. Something as simple as a backpack or pencil can instill the support and confidence students need to achieve success in the classroom and in their everyday lives. Of all the challenges a child experiencing homelessness may be faced with, a basic lack of supplies to complete schoolwork should not be one of them, especially since education can be a critical tool to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
In order to address the cascading effects of homelessness in New York, we must first understand the scope of the problem. In March 2022, there were 15,087 homeless children sleeping each night in New York City’s main municipal shelter system. What’s more, New York children are more likely to live in poverty than in 32 other states, with 18 percent (nearly one in five) experiencing poverty. During the 2020-2021 school year, more than 100,000 New York City schoolchildren reported being homeless at some point–a 42 percent increase since 2010, according to a report released by the group Advocates for Children.
This is unacceptable. Better economic conditions at home have long been tied to better academic performance in the classroom–a trend that only threatens to further entrench intergenerational poverty and trap young students in a vicious cycle.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Operation Backpack®, an initiative led by Volunteers of America–Greater New York that provides backpacks and grade-specific school supplies to every student living in a New York City homeless shelter.
For two decades through this program, Volunteers of America-Greater New York has helped level the playing field for children in New York’s shelter system and lightened the burden for many parents whose finances are already stretched thin, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the buck does not stop here when it comes to providing equitable access to education. We must continue working to address the widening gaps in our education system and provide our community members with the resources they need to survive and succeed. Operation Backpack® has been an essential tool in this fight. The initiative has provided hundreds of thousands of students with the school supplies they need to succeed in the classroom.
The program is also important for another reason: it helps reduces the stigma of homelessness for children. Frequent school transfers and the stigma associated with living in a shelter are disruptive and traumatizing. Without access to school supplies, many of these students would begin the school year with another disadvantage: unlike their classmates, they would enter the classroom with few, if any, tools to further their education alongside their peers.
To address this ongoing gap in access, we must work toward longer term solutions like expanding permanent affordable housing and building wealth in underserved communities. The onus is on us as a community to step up and work to help our neighbors in need. The good news is that the non-profit sector is already working with private sector business leaders and everyday New Yorkers to make this happen through efforts such as Operation Backpack®.
Let us also be clear: this is not the long-term solution to this crisis. As we strive to end homelessness in the Greater New York area, our hope is that every student will also one day have equitable access to the supplies and resources they need to succeed in school and beyond—but this is not our reality right now. For now, through Operation Backpack®, we are helping close a longstanding gap in our educational system even as we push for the policies and solutions that will make programs like ours obsolete in a future without homelessness.
Lee is the President and Chief Executive of Volunteers of America–Greater New York, an antipoverty organization working to end homelessness in New York.